Monday, August 11, 2014

Card #90: Nolan Ryan

Who Can It Be Now?
Lynn Nolan Ryan was born on January 31, 1947, in Refugio, Texas.  It's the same Nolan Ryan as the one who set a record for most no-hitters in a career, as celebrated on Card #5. As mentioned in the extensive SABR biography for him, Nolan grew up in Alvin, Texas, from the age of six weeks old because his father was transferred to the Hastings plant for Stanton Oil Company.  

From the time that Nolan was a sophomore in high school, he was his team's star pitcher. He had wildness issues -- the SABR biography mentions a game in which he hit the leadoff batter in the head (cracking the batting helmet) and the second batter in the arm (breaking the boy's arm) before the third batter had to be shamed into standing in the batter's box for three perfunctory swings and a strikeout. 

Despite the schoolboy stardom, however, Ryan was not drafted until the 12th round of the first-ever June Amateur Draft in 1965. The SABR biography appears to blame this drop on a bad outing that Ryan had in front of scouts from the Mets in May of 1965 -- an outing that took place "less than a day after Coach Watson had death-marched the Yellow Jacket team through endless wind sprints over a perceived lack of concentration in practice." Maybe so. Ryan had to choose, though, between the University of Texas and the New York Mets.  

He chose the Mets.  

Ryan signed immediately and headed to Marion in the Appalachian League. Baseball Reference does not have strikeout totals for Ryan that year; the Baseball Cube does.  In his 78 innings, Ryan racked up 56 walks (6.46 per 9 innings) and 115 Ks (13.27 per 9) while yielding 61 hits (7.04 per 9).  In other words, a fairly typical Nolan Ryan season in many respects.  

His 1966 season was his breakout year in the Mets system. His overall stats between Greenville in Single-A and Williamsport in Double-A was 17-4, 2.36 ERA, 202 innings, 118 hits allowed (5.3 per nine innings), 127 walks (6.25/9 IP), and 272 strikeouts (13.38/9 IP). The year earned him a late-season callup to the Mets in September, where the 19-year-old got knocked around some.  The first hitter he faced was Atlanta's Pat Jarvis, whom he promptly struck out.  He closed his first ever inning pitched by striking out future Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews looking., though he did give up a home run to Joe Torre in his next inning of work.

1967 was a lost year for Ryan due to arm trouble. A team doctor recommended surgery, but Ryan refused to go under the knife. He chose to rehabilitate his arm on his own, and he did so successfully. When he came to spring training in 1968, he was ready to go and ended up sticking with the big-league club out of spring training.  Quickly, baseball men around the league sang his praises -- with then St. Louis manager and later Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst calling Ryan, "the fastest I've ever seen. Period."  Ralph Kiner said, "I haven't seen anybody like him since Bob Feller." Catcher Jerry Grote claimed that Ryan "is faster than Koufax. He's got twice the speed of Juan Marichal."  I don't doubt he threw hard, but twice the speed of Marichal? That would have put him solidly in the 160 to 190 MPH range.

In any event, Ryan pitched a total of 5 seasons for the Mets, finishing with a losing record but earning his one and only World Series ring in 1969. Indeed,  But, by the end of the 1971 season, Ryan had suffered with a number of various ailments and interruptions in his Mets career. When he wasn't sidelined by repetitive blisters -- solved, apparently, by pickle brine bought at a Bronx delicatessen -- he would have to report for Army Reserve drills. Even the article from 1968 singing his praises noted that in the spring of 1968, Ryan had a tender biceps, an inflamed elbow, and blisters.

As a 1980 news article about Ryan quoted a New York Times article as stating, "He has been on the military list and the disabled list more often than he has been on the Mets rooming list."  As a result, the Mets gave up on the young fireballer and traded him with Frank Estrada, Don Rose, and Leroy Stanton to the California Angels on December 10, 1971, in exchange for Jim Fregosi.  The trade was new GM Harry Dalton's second major move of the off-season, and it turned out to be a winner for the Angels.  After all, Fregosi played 146 games in Flushing; Ryan threw four no-hitters in Anaheim.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Ryan was not as good in his years in New York as he would become later. After all, he was just about to turn 25 years old when the Mets traded him.  From 1972 through 1979, Ryan pitched with two good (1978 and 1979) and otherwise, with bad teams for Gene Autry. He still fought through some injuries, having bone chips removed from his elbow in the offseason before the 1976 season.

Ryan had some incredible statistical seasons with California -- 1974 in particular stands out. In that season, Ryan went 22-16 with a 2.89 ERA. He led the league in innings with 332-2/3, in walks issued with 202, in strikeouts with 367, in batters faced with 1392, in fewest hits per nine innings with 6.0, and in strikeouts per nine innings with 9.9.  In all, Ryan never had a season in California in which he walked fewer than 114 batters -- his lowest total was 114 in 1979. Despite incredibly low totals for hits allowed, he never had a WHIP (Walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) below 1.137 (his first year in California, 1972, when he allowed a miniscule 5.3 hits/9 IP).

During those years, however, Ryan was an All-Star on 5 occasions.  He did not pitch in the 1977 game, though, because he thought he should have been selected right off the bat.  Instead, he refused to play in the game only after he was selected as an injury replacement for teammate Frank Tanana -- a move which angered Billy Martin.  When Ryan was named to be the starter for the 1979 game against Steve Carlton, Ryan was quoted as saying that Martin had said that Ryan wouldn't have been on the team in 1978 even if Nolan were 40-0 -- so Bob Lemon being the Yankees manager helped Nolan become an all-star once again.

After the 1979 season -- a season which finished with Ryan having pitched one game in the ALCS -- Ryan became a free agent. Despite receiving significant interest from a number of teams, including the New York Yankees, the Texas Rangers, and the Milwaukee Brewers (!), he signed what was, at the time, the richest contract in American team sports with his hometown team, the Houston Astros, for a four-year, $4.5 million deal with a $1 million signing bonus and an additional $250,000 payment in 1984 with an option for 1984 at $1 million.  After the initial 5 years deal, Nolan inked for another four years with the Astros -- keeping him with the club through his age-41 season.

The signing was not universally loved.  In an article from the first ever issue of Inside Sports, now-ESPN loudmouth Tony Kornheiser wrote an article about Ryan and his big contract. A number of people were quoted being critical of Ryan.  Jim Palmer, for one:
Nolan's got so much more natural ability than the rest of us. He's like a child prodigy. You can't even comprehend what it's like to be that talented ... [but] he tries to intimidate people. I try to get them out. If you're going to lose, it's sure great to strike out 380 guys. I'm not saying he isn't a winner. Maybe his niche is 383 strikeouts. Mine is winning two-thirds of my games.
That's easy for Palmer and his incredible team defense to say.  Ryan even picked up on this in his response to that barb:
Don't tell me that Jim Palmer says he wouldn't throw a 3-2 curveball if he could throw 98; he wouldn't throw it down the middle if he could throw 98 -- and anyway, he couldn't know what it's like because he can't throw 98. He never stood on that mound with a bad team and no runs and knew if he threw one bad pitch he'd be beat. He was never in that position. Jim Palmer's always pitched for the best infield in baseball, and his team scored runs.
Ryan made another 2 all-star teams in Houston -- in 1981 and again in 1985.  He pitched for generally good teams in Houston, but he finished his 9 Astro seasons with a 106-94 record -- a .530 winning percentage.  In Houston, though, he was better able to harness his walks down to a far more manageable 3.9 BB/9 IP, which was 1.5 BB/9 lower than his totals in California.

If Ryan had quit after the 1988 season, he probably still would have made the Hall of Fame. By that time, he had racked up 4775 strikeouts and a 273-253 lifetime record. Instead, Ryan signed on with the Texas Rangers at the age of 42.  He made one final all-star team in 1989, and he picked up another 51 wins -- pushing his total to 324.  At the age of 42, he led the American League in strikeouts with 301 and in wild pitches with 19.  He gave up the fewest hits per nine innings in the American League in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and he led the American League in K/9 in each of those three seasons at the ages of 42, 43, and 44 respectively.  He did his pitching in 1990 while fighting a stress fracture in his lower back and a sore thumb injured by a car door being slammed on it.

He finally retired at the age of 46, after a 1993 season marred by ineffectiveness, wildness, and pain. He was then inducted into the Hall of Fame with Robin Yount and George Brett in 1999.

Mustache Check: Nope -- I've never seen a photo of Nolan with a mustache, and this one is no different.

Trivial Pursuit
Nolan Ryan's page at the Baseball Hall of Fame notes that Ryan is the only pitcher to have struck out the side on 9 pitches in both the American League and the National League.  

He did it in the National League, says the HOF, on April 19, 1968. Unfortunately, Baseball Reference does not have counts available for this game, so it could have been the first inning or the third inning in which Ryan performed the feat against the Dodgers.

His 9-pitch strikeout inning came in the American League on July 9, 1972, against the Boston Red Sox. Considering that Ryan pitched a one-hitter (1 walk, 16 strikeouts, game score of 100) against the Red Sox, that probably should not be a surprise.  Once again, without any information on the ball/strike count, it is impossible to know whether that 9-pitch inning came in the second or the third inning.

Incidentally, Ryan holds the record for most walks issued in a career, most strikeouts by a pitcher, and for the longest career in baseball, appearing in 27 seasons.

Louisiana Cookin'
A Texan like Ryan would bristle visibly at having his cooking abilities highlighted under a category named for another state.  But, when the recipe for Nolan Ryan's "Secret Barbecue Sauce" is published a newspaper article in 1983, is there any other place to put it?  The ingredients include onion, lemon, beer, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and bottled pre-made barbecue sauce (which seems like cheating to me).

But that was 1983. Now, Nolan has his beef products available for purchase under the brand of Nolan Ryan's All Natural Beef. His website includes "Signature Recipes" which all call for beef, of course.  Four 20 oz. steaks can be yours for the low, low price of just $74.99 plus shipping.  Then, when you get those steaks, be sure to put some of his Signature Seasoning on it -- just $29.97 from Amazon!

The World According to Garp
Not only is Nolan selling food products, he's also writing cookbooks.  In May, Little Brown & Co. published The Nolan Ryan Beef & Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes from a Texas Kitchen. It has gotten good reviews on Amazon, though I'm not sure whether those recipes vary from his website's signature recipes.

Ryan has written at least 3 autobiographies. He combined with Harvey Frommer to write Throwing Heat: The Autobiography of Nolan Ryan in 1988. In 1992, he collaborated with Jerry Jenkins to write Miracle Man: Nolan Ryan: The Autobiography (a book title that looks like an SAT comparison question gone awry). Finally, in 1999 and to capitalize on his election to the Hall of Fame, Ryan worked with T.R. Sullivan and Mickey Herskowitz to write Nolan Ryan: The Road to Cooperstown.

He also lent his name and received authorship credit on a book written in 1991 by Jim Rosenthal and Ryan's then-pitching coach, Tom House, called Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible: The Ultimate Guide to Power, Precision and Long-Term Performance.  

Ryan is credited with writing forewords for two books on top of all that -- Working at the Ballpark: The Fascinating Lives of Baseball People from Peanut Vendors and Broadcasters to Players and Managers and Once They Were Angels, a history of the Angels franchise.

Finally, in 1993, his name is on a book called Kings of the Hill: An Irreverent Look at the Men on the Mound.  I'm less sure on this book being his, since Amazon's summary of the book is, "An award-winning journalist probes the war of intimidation waged by American Express CEO James D. Robinson against banker Edmond Safra, as he used the resources of an entire corporation against one man. Reprint."  

Sounds pretty irreverent to me.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
There isn't much you can say about Nolan Ryan that hasn't been said before. Longevity, stubbornness, a mediocre win-loss record, control issues, a three-true-outcomes pitcher -- all of them are true.  

Now, some of the things written about him, though, may not be true.  I hate to give this guy any web traffic, but this blog post from TODAY sounds like the biggest bunch of spurious guilty-until-proven-innocent crap I've seen in a while.  Basically, it's an exercise in two plus two equals seven (five is too close to correct).

The summary is the first sentence of the article: "Nolan Ryan could have been using steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PED), not just late in his career, but also in the 1970s."


Tom House was Ryan's pitching coach in the early 1990s. House used steroids in the 1970s, as he admitted in 2005. House estimated that six or seven pitchers per team were at least experimenting with steroids or human growth hormones. Ryan pitched into his mid-40s. He threw fastballs by players years after other players his age had retired. Ryan's SABR biography does not mention the word steroid, nor does it "even . . . refute the idea that Ryan used PED."  Ryan was Jose Canseco's teammate in 1992 and 1993.

Summary: "How come no one challenges Nolan Ryan? He played long enough to have used steroids. His longevity is suspicious. . . . Ryan's final seasons leading the league in strike outs [sic] were at the ages of 40, 41, 42, 43. His previous age as league strike out [sic] leader was 32. Ryan went seven years without being strike out [sic] king until he recovered the touch at age 40. Ryan pitched a record seven no hitters at these ages: 26, 26, 27, 28, 34, 43, 44. This anecdotal evidence is completely ignored. Did Nolan Ryan use banned and/or illegal stuff to enhance his performance? I have no idea but I find it odd that the steroid zealots have such narrow vision."

My short response: Shouldn't you have more of an idea than "no idea" before you start throwing out your "anecdotal evidence" that has been "completely ignored"? I have no idea whether Ryan used steroids, HGH, Viagra, Valium, Penicillin, or injected himself with the blood of 15-year-old virgins, and neither does anyone else other than Nolan Ryan and perhaps his family and friends.  

The man was fanatical about working out, lifting weights, throwing all the time, and staying in good shape. Find someone who says, positively, that Ryan took steroids before you start throwing darts.  I mean, if Canseco knew Ryan took steroids, you know that Nolan's name would have been the first one on the cover of the book. It wasn't.

I've probably wasted too much energy and time thinking about that post, but the leaps of illogic are incredible.

On a brighter note, if you are interested in supporting Nolan Ryan's charity to assist the city of Alvin, Texas -- and the Nolan Ryan Exhibit Center at the Alvin Community College -- then check out the foundation here.  Part of the fundraising efforts consist of selling autographed balls and jerseys -- and the balls are only $80.  Considering the costs for autographs at the recent National Collectors Convention, that is a reasonable cost.  


  1. It is interesting to think about. Clemens was awesome in his later years too....... I hope its not true, but we'll never know.

  2. Man, Nolan Ryan is awesome. He was my grandpa's favorite player - he grew up in Texas as well and always fancied himself a cowboy. I live near Round Rock, where he has a minor league team named after him - the Round Rock Express. His ownership group owns the team, and I got to see him throw out the first pitch at Opening Day this year. Haven't tried any Nolan Ryan Beef - a little pricey for me.

  3. Oh, and those uniforms are glorious.